How 'Toy Story 4' Evokes the Journey of the Western Hero
[This story contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.]
By the time a series reaches the fourth entry of a franchise, especially one that counts children as a significant portion of its fanbase, audiences might not expect to be posed any deep questions. Yet, that’s exactly what Toy Story 4 does.
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Toy Story has always been Pixar’s most ambitious franchise. With each entry, this ongoing tale of anthropomorphic toys has grown more complex, reflecting the audience that has grown up with these characters since 1995. Toy Story as a generational franchise has been allowed to achieve what so few franchises can, grow up with their audience members in order to tell stories that are just as deeply affecting for kids as they are for teenagers and adults across multiple demographics.
Toy Story began as a highly imaginative yet relatively straight-forward narrative concerned with Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear’s (Tim Allen) competition for affection, something relatable to many younger viewers who had recently welcomed siblings into their lives. But over the course of the sequels, the property evolved to explore themes of belonging, ageism and even mortality. Through three entries Toy Story, Toy Story 2 (1999), and Toy Story 3 (2010), Pixar told a complete story and carved out a place among cinema’s best trilogies. The most recent entry, Toy Story 4, which seemed to have no reason to exist outside of financial, proves its creative necessity by taking us on what may be the series’ most existential and life-affirming installment.
There was a fair amount of skepticism attached to Toy Story 4 ahead of its release. Despite Pixar’s largely unblemished track record, the animation studio had wrapped up the franchise perfectly nine years prior with Toy Story 3. The lengthy and public development process, the numerous script rewrites, and John Lasseter’s alleged history of sexual misconduct that led to him being removed from Pixar, cast a pall over the film that even the most optimistic of film fans couldn’t ignore. Yet, Pixar rises above all of that to deliver another win that doesn’t just reunite us with everything we love about the series but takes a fresh perspective that dares to ask tough questions that hold surprising answers.
At the center of Toy Story 4 is Forky (Tony Hale), a spork pulled from the trash and given life by 5-year-old Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who glues googly eyes to its face, attaches popsicle stick feet and pipe cleaner arms. Through him, the film provides a new understanding of the term "toy," one that harkens back to Sid’s creations in the first film, though without the frightening element of toy abuse. Still, there’s an element of comedic horror to Forky’s existence, of being created and made to function as something for the pleasure of someone else. His repeated proclamation, “I am trash,” sure to become an oft-utilized meme in the coming years, is a clever reinvention of Buzz’s initial belief that he was a real space explorer before Woody’s truth bomb: “You are a toy.” But just because the environment Forky came from has left him designated as trash, he is loved even without understanding it. And this act of love means he has the ability to choose to be something more than what the laws of nature seemingly dictate. Woody once again finds himself in the position of bringing this awareness to a new toy, but this time around, the cowboy is no longer in the favored position he once held with Andy.
As we learn at the start of the film, Woody spends most of his time in the closest, gathering dust and watching as Bonnie plays with her other toys, his friends, and gives the role of sheriff to Jessie (Joan Cusack). Just as Forky asks “How am I alive?” Woody is faced with “Why am I still alive?” If his purpose is to provide happiness and memories to a child, what happens when that child doesn’t want him? If that question sounds sad, it’s because it is, and Toy Story 4 has no reservations about diving into this existential crisis of faith.
Woody, inseparable from the Western heroes he was modeled after, has finally fallen out of favor. Woody, like the American Western genre, has faded, become less meaningful in a modern world where "cowboy" has taken on a new context. Although the Western has become a background genre, it has managed to evolve, to reconfigure itself and attach itself to other genres. Toy Story 4 is Woody’s Unforgiven (1992), his Logan (2017) — but G-rated of course. It’s amusing to think of the animated film in this context, but there is truth to it. While the quiet dignity of those neo-Westerns is replaced with something more brash and humorous, the consideration of the character, whose road trip to save Forky and do one last meaningful thing for Bonnie, is uniquely similar to those hard-edged films.
Woody’s journey to save Forky is less of an ensemble than the previous three Toy Story films. All the familiar faces, and some new ones, are still there, but Toy Story 4 is Woody’s story. In his quest to rescue Forky, who has become lost in an antique shop, Woody reunites with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who has become a revolutionary, the face of the Lost Toys, a group who belong to no one child and travel the country alongside a carnival. Woody is torn between his loyalty to Bonnie and his affection for Bo Beep, who delivers some truth bombs of her own about their role as toys. Woody finds his answers through adversary Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who wants Woody’s voice box so that a little girl will notice her and love her. Through these central characters, Toy Story 4 weaves a story about what love is, how it changes, and how identity is shaped through this course. It’s a story of breakup and reunions, of maturity earned and the realization that what is lost can be found again.
Toy Story 4 is a story that anyone, of any age, can find meaning in, but it seems especially pertinent to the millennial generation who grew up with these films and are looking to find their place in a world that offered them rejection in the workplace, in advocacy, and in relationships. It doesn’t answer the how of existence, but as for the why, the message is clear. These toys exist, this film exists, we exist so that we can evolve to become what’s needed, not only for others but for ourselves. Toy Story 4 is an optimistic proclamation of our free will and individual necessity, even if they take on the forms we least expect.
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